The number of drophouses discovered by law-enforcement agencies in the Valley has decreased significantly over the last four years, further indication, federal immigration-enforcement officials say, that human smuggling in Arizona is waning.
Federal immigration officials found 490 illegal immigrants in 37 drophouses in the Phoenix area last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, compared with 3,221 illegal immigrants found in 186 drophouses in fiscal 2008, the peak year, according to statistics provided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Matthew Allen, special agent in charge of ICE investigations for Arizona, attributed the decrease in smuggling activity in Arizona to an overall decrease in illegal immigration because of the weak U.S. economy, tighter border security, stepped-up immigration enforcement, and tougher sentences imposed on smugglers who hold illegal immigrants hostage inside drophouses.
But while the number of drophouses discovered in the Phoenix area has decreased, there are signs that some of the illegal-immigration traffic may have moved from Arizona to the Rio Grande Valley at the southern tip of Texas, Allen said.
ICE officials say the typical way station is a vacant house with no beds or furniture. Armed smugglers stand watch over dozens of illegal immigrants who are crammed inside and who sleep on the floor in squalid conditions.
Scenes like this were commonplace four years ago, when the Phoenix area was the drophouse capital of the nation.
Hundreds of drophouses dotted neighborhoods throughout the Valley. They were used by smugglers to hold groups of illegal immigrants awaiting transport to other cities after being brought across the border from Mexico.
“The number of drophouses fluctuates with the volume of traffic, so as traffic has gone down, so has the number of drophouses gone down,” Allen said.
He added that when the economy turned sour, many of the industries that relied on illegal aliens no longer needed them, which added to the decrease in unauthorized workers crossing the border.
“Those are also the years in which we saw a very significant increase in (Department of Homeland Security) resources in Arizona,” he said. “ICE has grown a lot in that period, and (Customs and Border Protection) has grown a lot in that period, and to a certain extent, that application of resources on the border has had an impact on traffic in Arizona.”
He said stiff penalties in a number of hostage-taking cases handed out in state and federal courts also deterred smugglers from holding illegal immigrants in drophouses.
In 2009, a Mexican national was sentenced to 107 years in federal prison for being part of a violent smuggling group that beat, pistol-whipped and threatened to kill a group of 23 illegal immigrants they were holding hostage inside a Phoenix drophouse, according to ICE.
Another factor in the decrease of the number of illegal immigrants found inside drophouses may be that smugglers don’t want to risk losing large numbers of illegal immigrants in case the drophouse is discovered, Allen said.
“You remember the days here when we were hitting drophouses that had 60, 80 or more than 100 people in them,” Allen said. “These days, it’s very rare that we see a drophouse that has more than 20 or 30 people in it.”
Still, Allen said, “that doesn’t mean that there’s none out there.”
So far this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, immigration officials have found 134 illegal immigrants in 11 drophouses, ICE said. Two of those drophouses involved illegal immigrants who were being held against their will.
Most recently, ICE officials, with help from Phoenix police, found 14 illegal immigrants held hostage in a drophouse in the 7900 block of West Highland Avenue, near 80th Avenue and Camelback Road.
The drophouse was discovered after ICE officials in Atlanta received a call from a woman who said her niece was being held hostage inside the house.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose office operates a unit targeting criminal organizations that smuggle illegal immigrants, said he also has seen a decrease in drophouses recently.
Deputies from the Sheriff’s Office discovered five drophouses in 2012, down from eight the year before.
Arpaio, however, said he believes fewer drophouses being discovered is an indication that smugglers have changed their tactics. To avoid detection because of stepped-up immigration enforcement in Maricopa County, he believes smugglers are bypassing the Phoenix area.
“They just changed their method,” Arpaio said. “Instead of hanging around Phoenix, they are just going directly” to other cities.
The office’s human-smuggling unit continues to find smuggling vehicles loaded with illegal immigrants on highways that pass through Maricopa County, Arpaio said.
During the unit’s most recent 30-day operation, deputies apprehended 75 illegal immigrants being transported in smuggling vehicles through Maricopa County, Arpaio said.
Still, the overall number of illegal immigrants apprehended by the unit is down; 381 this year compared with 831 last year, according to figures provided by Arpaio’s office.
A shift to Texas
Meanwhile, Border Patrol apprehensions were down 3 percent last year in the Tucson Sector but up 15 percent in the Yuma Sector, according to data for Oct. 1, 2011, through July 31, 2012. Data for the entire year is not yet available.
In the Tucson Sector, the nation’s busiest for illegal border crossings, there were 105,343 apprehensions from Oct. 1 through July 31, compared with 109,005 during the same period the year before.
In the Yuma Sector, apprehensions increased from 5,061 during the first 10 months of fiscal 2011 to 5,837 through July 31 of fiscal 2012.
There are indications that some of the illegal-immigration traffic that used to pass through Arizona has moved to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
“That part of the United States has seen an increase in apprehensions over the last few years so, to a certain extent, there has been a shift out of Arizona,” Allen said.
Border Patrol statistics show that apprehensions of illegal immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley Sector increased from 48,487 during the first 10 months of fiscal 2011 to 79,719 during the same period of fiscal 2012. The sector covers 18 counties in southeastern Texas.
Beginning in February, ICE officials began to see a sudden increase in the number of drophouses discovered in the Rio Grande Valley, mostly in Hidalgo and Cameron counties, said Nina Pruneda, an ICE spokeswoman in Texas.
Since then, ICE officials have discovered several dozen drophouses, some with more than 60 people inside, although the number of drophouses being discovered seems to have tapered off recently, Pruneda said.
Pruneda said the increase in that area is an indication that illegal immigration from Mexico has increased in southern Texas, but she said it’s unclear if that increase is a result of a shift from Arizona.
Charges of violence
In Arizona, most of the drophouses discovered in the Phoenix area have been clustered in west Phoenix near the Interstate 10 corridor or in Mesa near U.S. 60, Allen said.
In the most recent case, the woman who called ICE officials in Atlanta said a smuggler had contacted her and said her niece was being held in the drophouse in Phoenix and she would be killed unless the woman paid the smuggler $4,000, according to ICE officials.
Over the next two days, ICE investigators located the drophouse on West Highland Avenue. When ICE agents and Phoenix police raided the house, the three smugglers attempted to flee through a back door and then ran back inside, according to ICE officials.
ICE agents arrested three Mexican nationals, Francisco Javier Astorga-Velarde, 22, Jose Pedro Soto Valdez, 32, and Noel Galdinez-Marmolejo, 32, according to ICE officials. They were charged with conspiring to harbor illegal aliens, according to ICE officials.
According to ICE, Astorga-Velarde is believed to have served as the “boss” of the house. He is accused of calling the woman and threatening to kill her niece unless he was paid $4,000. He is also accused of hitting two illegal immigrants being held in the house in the face with a gun. In addition, he faces allegations of threatening to sexually assault a female illegal immigrant and threatening to cut her into pieces and throw her in the trash, according to ICE.
Galdinez-Marmolejo is accused of hitting one of the male victims with a gun on the head, face, hands and feet. Soto Valdez is accused of beating a male victim with a gun and threatening to sexually assault, cut, kill or sell female victims if their smuggling fees were not paid, according to ICE.